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Tin House Writers Workshop: Day Five

Today was the first day that I ended up missing breakfast, but it seemed like the right choice. Those extra minutes of sleep made all the difference in how awake I felt during the rest of the day. I made it to the first lecture of the day just in time, which turned out to be one of the most emotional and meaningful lectures of the whole week. In fact, I count this as the best day all in all of the entire week.

9AM: MAKING THE BLACK DOG SIT w/ Matthew Dickman

This talk given by poet Matthew Dickman was on the subject of suicide in literature. According to the program, the talk “touches on the complicated subject of suicide through poems that explore the mystery, and investigate the unknown of this often misunderstood act.” Dickman began his talk by writing two quotes on the blackboard of the lecture hall.

“No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide.” -Cesar Pavese

“I do not recommend this for everyone.” -From the poet Vladimir Myakovsky’s suicide note.

It became almost immediately apparent to me that the issue of suicide was very close to Dickman as he spoke about it, just as you will undoubtedly see how close the issue of suicide is to me after seeing how much space I give in this post to this talk. After writing down the quotes the talk was opened up by asking a few questions of the audience. The first question he asked was, “If there are any people here who have been affected by the suicide of a relative or close friend, would you please stand up if you feel comfortable?” Without really thinking about it, I stood up in response to Dickman’s question. Then I looked around. About one fourth of the people in the room had stood up. Then, Dickman asked, “Now, would those who have had distant friends or acquaintances who committed suicide please stand up?” About half the remaining sitting attendants of the talk were now standing. Finally came, “And now could those who have heard news of someone, anyone’s suicide, please stand up.” The whole room now stood. We then were asked to sit down.

Speaking in a very straightforward and heartfelt manner, Dickman began to discuss the taboo nature still inherent in any discussion of suicide. Quoting Earl Grollman, Dickman said, “Suicide is a whispered word, inappropriate for polite company. Family and friends often pretend they do not hear the word’s dread sound even when it is uttered. For suicide is a taboo subject that stigmatizes not only the victim but the survivors as well.” Suddenly, I saw the point of the exercise preceding this point. Everyone knows about suicide. It happens. Many people have been affected by it personally, so why is it still such a forbidden subject? And why is this act that flies in the face of all survivalist notions and evolutionary psychology and developmental theory so little addressed or depicted in the art form that we have chosen? Unfortunately, this question can never truly be answered, but Dickman did some great things in analyzing and giving some pointers as to how the subject of suicide should be addressed and expressed in literature. The first thing to avoid is melodrama–the second thing is romanticism. Some poems that Dickman handed out to the group that illustrated this were: “In the House of Death” by Joe Bolton, “Wanting to Die” by Anne Sexton, and “A Poem Without a Single Bird In It” by Jack Spicer. In each of these poems, the idea of suicide is discussed dispassionately and somewhat indirectly. (Interestingly, there’s another Anne Sexton poem about suicide called “Suicide Note.”)

After analyzing the poetry, Dickman then addressed the issue of suicide in general, not just in art. Some things to remember from his talk that stuck with me are here (again feel free to ask about any of the points on the list):

  • Fallacy: Those who attempt suicide and fail will never do it again.
  • A suicide’s last moments are ones of control.
  • Suicides think of the tools, not the why.
  • The act itself is an affair.

In discussing these points, Dickman told us the story of his own brother-in-law who committed suicide. He recounted each action his brother in law had taken in the process of killing himself. These actions included doing the laundry, taking out the trash, cleaning the house, and other things. This account of a suicide reminded me of when I was a boy. One of my parents’ friends had killed himself after putting all his affairs together, getting a haircut, updating his will, among other things. Completely floored, I sat and listened to Dickman’s talk, stunned at his insight and the fact that he managed to avoid condemning suicides while at the same time avoiding turning them into something to be admired. I found myself crying as he continued to speak about the people he had known who committed suicide, which reminded me of the people I had known myself who committed suicide: the family friend I spoke about, one of my best friends, my friend Chris, one of my fellow track team members, the list goes on. I looked around and saw that there were others who were crying. The importance of talking about this issue struck me as so much more important now that I saw in person how many people had been affected by it. Now I’m that much more dedicated to discussing this issue in my own writing that I find myself re-writing and revising at least a couple different of stories of mine that discuss suicide.


Again, today was another brilliant day with Ben Percy in the workshop. Today Ben talked about the importance of emotional beats. Basically those moments where the narrative steps in, opens up, and either sets up action or explains the repercussions of action. One example Ben gave of an emotional beat is at the very end of “Guest of the Nation” by Frank O’Connor where we see three very distinct reactions to the execution of British soldiers by members of the IRA.

There are certain times during the workshop where Ben would come out and say something that made you feel like you got smacked in the forehead. Everything about a certain element of craft becomes so clear that you know you’ll never forget it. Regarding emotional beats, Ben said something that I’ll never forget because it was so simply put and I had always seen it, but it was never articulated. “Emotional beats before a scene, it’s context; emotional beats after a scene, it gives us resonance.” Bam. Simple as that. But it explained so much at the time that I felt like a veil was lifted before my eyes. Small revelations like these are why we go to workshops, I feel. At least, that’s one of the reasons.


All right, so this talk was at least as good as the one given by Matthew Dickman. Urrea is fucking amazing. After his reading (or recitation) the previous night, I was more than excited to see what Urrea had to talk about. According to the program, Urrea would be talking about how life afforded him stories to tell and how important it is to experience life in order to be able to evoke life authentically with your stories. The notes I took away from his talk are:

  • All the things that you are told to be ashamed of are actually fountains of strength for you.
  • Do not be ashamed.
  • Rely on trust in your writing.
  • Writing is entering ritual space.
  • The world exists as story.
  • Surrender yourself to the writing.
  • There are three presences in the universe: These forces extend to the realm of storytelling. Artist (angel), Editor (teacher, guard), Inner Critic (demon).
  • Find a way to silence the inner critic.
  • We know what’s golden and what’s not. We just hope it’s not true when we know something to not be golden.

Urrea probably sounds like kind of a weird dude if you haven’t talked to him and you’ve been given no context with which to get this information. There are certain things you should know about him. One, he’s a fan of Jim Morrison. Two, he is from Tijuana, Mexico where he has had exposure to medicine men, shamans, and curanderas in South America. He is quite in touch with the mystical realm and believes very deeply in the power of storytelling. Just being there to watch him speak was enough to be inspired.


To round out the last of the amazing talks that made this day so good was Ben Percy’s discussion of how the job a character has shapes the entire story you tell. At the beginning of his talk, Ben Percy gave us a rundown on the character of his father-in-law, a corn farmer in Iowa. Everything about his father-in-law’s personality is shaped by his work. What he observes while he drives, what he listens to on the radio, what he talks about while making small talk.  During his talk, Ben brought up the fact that as a creative writing teacher, he sees tons of stories each year by up and coming writers. The one thing that seems to stand out in all these stories by college students is the fact that the characters never seem to work. That’s the point where I really tuned in to what he was saying. Though he didn’t say it, I knew Ben was talking about my story and all the stories in our workshop in addition to the ones he has to look at in his creative writing classes. Not one of my stories that I’ve written so far has a character who has a job. I’m not sure why that is. Probably because I feel like I haven’t had that much experience with work. Whatever it was, I felt like I definitely needed to listen to this talk. To illustrate his point about how integral work is to characters and story, he referenced many different stories to prove his point, including “Those Who Move Pianos,” The Things They Carried, and And Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris. A couple main points I took from this talk were:

  • The way you see the world is wrapped up in how you work.
  • POV corrals description, job defines POV.

To prove these points from his talk, Percy finished his talk by singing Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” in a very deep-voiced and impressive (if I may say so) rendition.

8PM: READING w/ Pauls Toutonghi, Matthew Dickman, and Peter Rock

After the two cocktail hours and dinner and about three or four glasses of absinthe courtesy of one of my workshop friends, Jason, the reading for the night began in the auditorium. By the way, I never knew that absinthe tasted so much like black licorice–so fucking good! And for those of you who know about my lightweight status, I was feeling good by the time the reading rolled around. I sat next to my friend Kenzie at the reading and she pulled out an iPad and took a picture of the whole amphitheater with this app called 360…it was pretty awesome. The first reading was done by Pauls Toutonghi, who read from his latest work in progress. The novel wasn’t really like anything I normally read, so it was cool to hear something completely new to me. The next reading was by Matthew Dickman. He read a bunch of poems from his latest collection. They made me cry they were so good. And the last reading was by Peter Rock, who read from his latest book set in a church community with a religion that believes that the end of the world has come. It was really interesting and a pretty good reading all around. Dickman’s reading definitely stood out among all of them.


Another awesome night of talking and drinking and doing other substances of that nature happened after the reading. I made the rounds and hung out with the friends I made over the week so far. Prepare for namedropping. I also had an awesome conversation with Luis Urrea about his talk and then we digressed into talking about Jim Morrison and our mutual love for him. I went back to my room quite high and a little bit drunk and finally passed out around 2 or 3 in the morning. Awesome day.


About rydowney

What’s up party poetry people?! Welcome to my poetry blog. This is my rambling intro to you. My name is Ry. Ry Downey if you’re interested in googling me (giggity) but I’m not sure it will turn up anything interesting. I’m a citizen of Planet Earth and I might be from Mars. Or Venus, because I believe in love more than I do war. Yes, Venus. Definitely Venus. I love the thought of aliens and space–I’m a lover of nature and sunshine and laughing so hard I cry. I love my friends and my family and anything that makes me feel love and appreciation and gratitude for having lived this long on this beautiful rock floating through the stars. And then comes poetry.

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